Books Read in 2021 – On Beauty – Zadie Smith

Genre: Black fiction, Literary fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of different viewpoints, chronological

Rating: 3.5/5

Published: 2006

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The Belseys and the Kipps don’t get on. They are both art scholars, both study Rembrandt and Monty Kipps got his book out first. When Jerome Belsey falls for Victoria (Vee) Kipps, the families are thrown together again and again. Howard Belsey has marriage trouble. His wife, Kiki, is also dissatisfied. Carlene Kipps is dying. The various offspring of the two families have various personal issues including finding an authentic identity (Levi) and championing the cause of academia (Zora). All of this is played out on the campus of Wellington University.

Time on shelf: I inherited this when my husband’s aunt died in 2014. In the meantime I read Swing Time which I didn’t really like and this put me off going back to Smith. (I had previously read White Teeth and The Autograph Man.)

I went back and forth on how to rate this one. It is well written (4 stars) and it covers issues of identity successfully (4 stars) but the characters didn’t grab me (3 stars) and the plot was slow and didn’t pull me in (3 stars). It was a bit of a slog at times. When I got to the end, all I felt was relief that it was over.

There can be no doubt that Smith can turn a phrase. This is very well written. It is also ambitious. It is based on Howard’s End by E. M. Forster which is not a book I’ve read. I have seen the film though and once I realised, it made sense. Very different families. A gift betrothed but not delivered. And, in fact, it made me feel a lot like when I have read Forster – a little like I must have missed a joke or maybe I’m just not quite clever enough to get it.

Part of the problem is that the characters weren’t very interesting to me – in fact, they were almost stereotypes. Howard Belsey is a white professor, married to a black woman who is not as thin as she used to be. He is floundering in his career and has recently had an affair with a fellow lecturer. He is terrible with technology. He ends up sleeping with Monty’s daughter. This seems a little like it could be a character arc in a John Updike novel. Kiki is little more than her race and her weight. Monty Kipps is a typical right wing, conservative Christian. And so on.

Similarly, the plot wasn’t particularly compelling. In fact, it often felt like the most interesting things happened off-page. I enjoyed the bequeathing of a painting by Carlene to Kiki which Monty tried to hide but even then, the court case that ensues happens elsewhere. Also, as I have previously mentioned. I’m not a massive fan of posh people or campus tales so this was on a loser from the start. I’m not sorry I read it but I’m not sure that I’ll read anymore Smith novels.

Top Ten Tuesday – Halloween Special

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

Today the top ten was a Halloween freebie so I have written a straightforward list of my favourite horror / supernatural novels.

  1. The Silence of the Lambs – Thomas Harris (1988) The relationship between Clarice and Hannibal Lector is what makes this novel.
  2. The Fog – James Herbert (1975) A mysterious fog seeps from a crack in the earth and drives people mad. A superb read.
  3. The Stand – Stephen King (1978) This contains one of my favourite pieces of writing ever where King describes the spread of a virus from the first sneeze onwards. Like The Road, a post-apocalyptic scenario.
  4. Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin (1967) Even better than the film (which follows the novel really closely.)
  5. I am Legend – Richard Matheson (1954) A last man standing tale with Robert Neville fighting the vampires for his humanity and the future of the world.
  6. The Road – Cormac McCarthy (2006). Perhaps not an obvious horror choice but the bleakness of the landscape and the dark violence earn it its place.
  7. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley (1818) I love this book and its commentary on the way society treats outsiders. It does what all good horror should do and make you think
  8. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) A great story about hypocrisy and sin. I’ve taught this any number of times and it hasn’t lost its freshness.
  9. Some of Your Blood – Theodore Sturgeon (1961) A strange vampiric tale, told through letters and diaries. The pay off is definitely worth it.
  10. The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells (1897) Much better than the film, this is a dark parable about not being accepted by society and the repercussions of that.

Books Read in 2021 – 32. Jews Don’t Count – David Baddiel

Genre: Politics, Non-Fiction, Race

Narrative Style: First person

Published: 2021

Rating: 4/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: David Baddiel discusses the ways in which anti-Semitism is treated differently from other types of racism and prejudice using examples from the media, TV and social media.

Time on Shelf: Not very long. I read The Plot Against America at the start of the year and that sparked an interest in Jewish History. Earlier in the year, I watched Baddiel confronting Holocaust deniers for a TV program and that made me warm to him in a way I hadn’t previously so when this book came up on Kindle I bought it.

I have a mixed history with David Baddiel. When he first appeared on the comedy scene – or at least when I first became aware of him – he was with The Mary Whitehouse Experience and I loved that but then came the football years and his (and Frank Skinner’s) humour was too laddish and football based to appeal to me. Then I read Whatever Love Means which I really think is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. After that, I didn’t really take much notice of what he was up to. Then earlier this year, I watched Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel. If I hadn’t watched that, I certainly wouldn’t have read this book.

Baddiel begins by talking about a review of Charlie Kaufman’s first novel Antkind by Holly Williams. Williams complains that it has a ‘white-male-cis-het perspective’ and is, therefore, part of the patriarchal orthodoxy. However, the narrator – B. Rosenberger Rosenberg is described as having Jewish characteristics such as a Rabbinical beard and other characters behave anti-Semitically towards him. Baddiel feels, rightly I think, that this means the character is less privileged than Williams assumes.

Baddiel contends that unlike other forms of prejudice, anti-Semitism isn’t treated with any depth of seriousness. He gives examples of non-Jewish actors playing Jewish roles not meeting with any sort of outrage and whilst actors don’t have to black up to play a Jewish character, there are a number of characteristics that called be donned to show that you are playing Jewish. (He compared this to the outrage that greets a heterosexual actor playing a homosexual character which is probably a more apt comparison than blacking up.) I admit that I hadn’t really considered this before. Partly because I wouldn’t necessarily know whether an actor was Jewish or not but mostly because I wouldn’t have thought it was something I needed to think about. Baddiel suggests that this is one of the ways that Jews don’t count. He gives the example of Al Pacino in Hunters and Gary Oldman in Mank, accusing Oldman of not only being not Jewish but a supporter of Mel Gibson and his famously anti-Semitic rant. He asks how could this be allowed to happen?

He suggests it is because Jews occupy a unique position in society – that is as both high and low – privileged, famously running the world in many conspiracy theories and money hoarding on the one hand, low, rat-like and sly on the other. In this way, Baddiel discusses how Jews can be seen as both white and not white. He explains that while Jews might often look white, they don’t often feel white. That is they are not able to feel the sense of privilege that comes with being white. Their lives are not secure. They do not feel safe. As Baddiel rightly points out, we are not that many generations away from the Holocaust and its effects can still be felt. He talks about his own grandparents who fled to England in 1939 with his mother who was a baby. They had been rich but had been robbed of it all by the time they fled. When you know can lose everything simply because you are Jewish, you do not have privilege.

Baddiel discusses many instances of his interactions on Twitter and his experiences of being told not he is experiencing racism or not. He looks at the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn’s abject failure to deal with anti-Semitism. It’s hard to imagine people leaping to Corbyn’s defence if any other type of prejudice were being discussed. In fact, Corbyn comes in for a lot of criticism and rightly so. Other people, such as Roald Dahl, are outed as anti-Semites.

It is easy to follow Baddiel’s arguments and I found them affecting and could understand his anger. I do think that his determination to focus on Twitter made his prose somewhat disjointed at times. Also, it is hard to take someone 100% seriously when they say they don’t count via a book they have had published which many will read. (I felt similarly when I read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.) But these are minor quibbles. Definitely worth a read.

Books Read in 2021 – 31. Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith

Genre: Crime

Narrative Style: third person, chronological

Published: 1950

Rating: 3.5/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Guy Haines and Charles Bruno meet on the train. Bruno is immediately captivated by Haines and proposes that they sort out their respective problems by each murdering the person who is holding them back – Haines’ wife, Miriam, and Bruno’s father. There would be no link between them and neither would get into trouble. Haines is not keen and assumes that Bruno is talking hypothetically but when Miriam is murdered, he realises he may have to keep up his side of the bargain.

Time on Shelf: I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time but only recently purchased a copy.

This is starting to be a theme for this year’s reading but I didn’t enjoy this as much as I expected. Certainly, it was not as straightforwardly thrilling as The Talented Mr RIpley and I felt it lacked the tension of that novel. I did go back and forth between ratings as parts of it were very good but other parts left me feeling bored.

The novel starts strongly. The opening line – ‘The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.’ – immediately gives the reader an impression of an unpleasant atmosphere. This is not the start of a happy story. Guy Haines is the impatient passenger, desperate to get where he is going so he can get a divorce from his wife. He is caught in his unhappy and hateful thoughts by Charles Bruno, rich and ridiculous, who joins his carriage. Bruno is full of wild ideas. The main one that he shares with Haines is the idea of two strangers, meeting briefly, carrying out a murder for each other, and then never meeting ever again. So far so good. I was hooked.

However, it then seemed to take ages for the first murder to happen. I didn’t feel the build up of tension. It felt stodgy and I wanted to get past it. This is partly due to the fact that I had an idea of what was going to happen. This isn’t a book one comes to blind. I knew there was to be action and I was impatient to get to it. This may be my problem not Highsmith’s.

There are moments of high tension after that but I didn’t feel that overall it lived up to the promise of the meeting on the train. Haines’ panic after he has killed Bruno’s father is well described and the way he falls apart even though he now has everything he wants is convincing but I expected that this would be impossible to put down and it just wasn’t.

One of the more interesting elements of the book is the way that it is a metaphor for the hidden nature of homosexuality at the time of writing. Two strangers meet on the train, they hook up and go on with their lives except Bruno keeps appearing in Haines’ life spoiling his marriage to his new wife, making Haines ashamed of the things he has done. Bruno equally knows the dangers of seeing Haines as they need to remain undiscovered but he cannot keep away. When he removes Miriam from the picture, he is making a space for himself in Haines’ life that he cannot possibly fill. Haines immediately marries again, pushing Bruno back out of his life. This was more interesting then the actual plot.

The ending was disappointing. Although I sensed that getting caught was actually a relief to Haines, it still felt anticlimactic. And I felt that Bruno deserved more punishment than falling from Haines’ boat. None of it felt very satisfying. Perhaps I’ll stick to reading the Ripley books.

Top Ten Tuesday – Bookish Pet Peeves

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

Top Ten Bookish Pet Peeves

  1. An obvious romance – I’m not a big fan of romance in general but it works best, I think, when there is some genuine peril (if that is the correct word). I find it annoying when the end relationship is never in doubt. Example: How to fall in love – Celia Ahern – the female lead, Christine is trying to help Adam win his ex-girlfriend back but, of course, this isn’t what ends up happening. Tedious.
  2. A disappointing end to a series – It is annoying when you invest the time to follow a series of books and then it turns out to be a rubbish ending. It’s exciting when you know that you are coming to the end of a series and the letdown of a bad ending is magnified by the number of books you have read up to that point. Example: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. The main problem is how much of the action takes place away from Katniss but it also the lack of a hunger games and the tedious love triangle.
  3. A movie cover – I understand why publishers feel the need to do this but it really is annoying. I much prefer a nice art print or something more abstract. The problem with a movie cover is that it gives you an idea of what the characters look like and it is hard to move past. (Incidental peeve – On my kindle, often the covers update when there has been a movie version which is very irritating.)
  4. The problems of posh people – I really don’t want to read about people with money who often have to make problems for themselves because otherwise their moneyed lives would be just fine. They are generally obnoxious and unpleasant. Example: The Secret History – Donna Tartt. The obnoxious, snobby students are so full of themselves and their professor is even worse. They end up murdering because they are beyond normal morality. Just unpleasant. (See also Amsterdam by Ian McEwan,)
  5. When you buy the next book by an author or in a series and the cover design has completely changed. When you buy a lot of books by an author – be it all in a series or not – it’s nice if the books all look similar to each other and sit nicely together on the shelf. However, publishers and fashions change and so do covers. I’ve not got the money to rebuy books just so they all look the same although I know some people who have. Example: Rebus Series – Ian Rankin.
  6. Pretentious prose – I do find it annoying when the prose style gets in the way of reading smoothly. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate a clever phrase as much as the next person but it should be fluid. It shouldn’t be the author showing off their vocabulary. Example: Any recent novel by Ian McEwan.
  7. When someone is killed or dies in order for another character to learn some life lesson. It is usually women that have to go through things or be killed and men who learn something about themselves or live an improved life because of what they learned. Example: Thirteen Reasons Why – Jay Asher. Hannah’s suicide, and all the things that lead up to it, are ultimately character development for Clay who realises what he needs to do to improve his own life.
  8. Teenage first person blues – I am quite far removed from my teenage years now but I do find myself reading fiction from the point of view of teenagers fairly regularly. I find it harder and harder to relate to a teenage narrator and their self centred worlds. Examples: Simon Vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli and Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, Turtles All The Way Down – John Green and the entire Divergent series.
  9. When they totally mess up the film / TV version – I’m not sure that this is really a book peeve but it is related. When you have really loved a book, you get excited to see what someone has done with it. While I know that everyone’s imagination is different but sometimes, directors seem to go out of their way to mess things up. Examples: The Book Thief, The Golden Compass, The Other Boleyn Girl to name but three.
  10. When it is impossible to suspend my disbelief – I think I am quite good at suspending my disbelief but sometimes things just get too ridiculous. Sometimes it depends on how good the prose is or how good the characters are and you would just about accept anything but if these are not so good then you are less able to disbelieve. Examples: Where the Crawdad’s Sing by Delia Owens, The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman and Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus.

Books Read in 2021 30. The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman

Genre: Cosy Detective

Narrative Style: First person from one point of view, third person from a lot of different perspectives

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2020

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Four septuagenarians meet every week to try and solve old police cases. Then a murder occurs that is linked to their care home. They can’t help but get involved.

Time on shelf: Not long. This was given to me by my father in law because he hadn’t really liked it and he wondered what I would think of it.

I’m always a bit sceptical of celebrities writing novels. Sales are based on the famous name rather than the quality of the prose so there is no need for it to be amazing. However, I did think that if anyone could do it well, Osman could. After all, he is clearly intelligent and witty so I had higher hopes for this then I would have had for any other celebrity effort.

This intelligence is clear throughout. The main reason that this book has two stars rather than one is that it is not badly written. Osman can string a sentence together and he has a good vocabulary. It is tightly plotted with plenty (perhaps too many) twists and turns. I can see why people might enjoy it. However, I found it irritating from almost the very first.

There are a number of problems. The first one to come to light, is the switching between characters. Osman has opted for one first person narrator and any number of third person perspectives. This isn’t a problem in itself but Osman’s chapters tend to be short and they jump around all over the place so you barely get to grips with one perspective before you have to deal with the next. It starts to feel a bit chaotic.

The next thing is the tone. This book is clever and it knows. There are lots of little jokes and asides. The prose really rubbed me up the wrong way. For example, ‘How peculiar to be in this room! He shivers. Probably just the cold.’ For a start, it is present tense which is annoying. Then it is supposed to suggest something about Father Mackie (the shiverer in question) and make the reader suspicious but it is so heavy handed and unsubtle that I couldn’t take it seriously.

The characters are a wacky crew. Elizabeth, the leader of the group, was formally a spy and her former exploits are dropped casually into the narrative. She has any number of useful contacts and is adept at being two steps ahead of everyone else. However, instead of seeming like a fully rounded character, she starts to seem slightly superhuman in her leaps of intuition. There really isn’t all that much more to her either. She’s a former spy and Osman never lets us forget it. Similarly, Ron Ritchie is a union man, through and through and, again, little more. Joyce and Ibrahim are even less interesting. Joyce is a bit drippy and Ibrahim was presumably included for diversity reasons rather than anything else.

Finally, there is not a single moment of this novel when I wasn’t aware I was reading a book. The events are unconvincing. The characters – particularly the police – are unconvincing. Then there are the number of twists and turns. A better name for this book might be A Plethora of Red Herrings. There are only so many times I can stand being lead up the garden path. This novel has you running up and down it constantly. Not satisfying. I will not be reading on. Not that it matters. No doubt, millions will.

Top Ten Tuesday – Top Ten Books on my Autumn To Read List

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

How it works:

I assign each Tuesday a topic and then post my top ten list that fits that topic. You’re more than welcome to join me and create your own top ten (or 2, 5, 20, etc.) list as well. Feel free to put a unique spin on the topic to make it work for you! 

A nice straightforward list this week – what I intend to read next. I can’t promise I will keep to it. I’m always getting distracted by new books but this is the intention. Any thoughts about any of them gratefully received.

  1. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’ve been meaning to read this for a while. It sounds interesting and I really enjoyed Half A Yellow Sun.
  2. Jews Don’t Count – David Baddiel. I’ve just downloaded this onto my Kindle as it is an area I’m interested in knowing more about.
  3. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte. I read this at school and enjoyed it but I can’t remember it very well so time for a reread.
  4. The Long Call – Anne Cleeves. I really enjoyed the Shetland books but this is the first Cleeves book outside that series that I’ve bought.
  5. The Collector – John Fowles. I’ve been intending to read this since I was at university (which is a long time ago). I finally bought a copy last year.
  6. No One Writes to the Colonel – Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s a long time since I last read any Marquez. I’m not sure why as I enjoyed the others that I have read.
  7. Mysterious Skin – Scott Heim. Another book that has been on the reading list for a long time but I only just purchased.
  8. Bleeding Hearts – Ian Rankin. I love the Rebus books but the only other non-Rebus that I read, I wasn’t that impressed with. We’ll see.
  9. On Beauty – Zadie Smith. I’ve read a few of Smith’s books in the past although I wasn’t that impressed with the last one (Swing Time). Time to give her another chance, I think.
  10. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain. I read Tom Sawyer a few years ago and thought it was about time I read this one.

Top Ten Books with a Number in the Title.

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

How it works:

I assign each Tuesday a topic and then post my top ten list that fits that topic. You’re more than welcome to join me and create your own top ten (or 2, 5, 20, etc.) list as well. Feel free to put a unique spin on the topic to make it work for you! Please link back to That Artsy Reader Girl in your own post so that others know where to find more information.

Here is my list. There is a surprising number of dystopias and science fiction in here, perhaps because of the use of years in titles. In numerical order:

  1. Noughts and Crosses – Malorie Blackman (2001) Excellent dystopia with a focus on race and prejudice. Better than the TV show.
  2. Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut (1969) One of the best anti-war novels. A look at the effect of war on the mind.
  3. Starter For Ten – David Nicholls (2003) Romance based around a team taking part in University Challenge. The film was better.
  4. 11/22/63 – Stephen King (2011) Interesting science fiction / alternate history focusing on the question of what would have happened if Kennedy had not been shot.
  5. 13 Reasons Why – Jay Asher (2007) Girl dies so boy can learn to live a better life pretty much sums this one up
  6. Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith (2008) A thriller set in communist Russia. Okay thriller with some interesting political points to make.
  7. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (1953) One of my favourite dystopias. The idea of books being burned is so disturbing.
  8. 1984 – George Orwell (1949) Another brilliant dystopia. Particularly fitting reading in the current political climate.
  9. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke (1968) This did not help my paranoia about technology. Also interesting ideas about the nature of the universe.
  10. 20000 Leagues Under The Sea – Jules Verne (1869). Not a bad adventure but I did get fed up with the long lists of fish.

Books Read in 2021 29. I am the Messenger – Markus Zusak

Genre: Australian fiction, young adult, bildungsroman

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2002

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Ed Kennedy is a no hoper. He drives a cab and hangs around with his friends. He has a dog and is in love with Audrey, one of his friends even though she is not interested in him romantically. He has no prospects and no ambitions. Then playing cards start to appear in his mailbox and his life changes irrevocably.

Time on Shelf: About six months. After reading Bridge of Clay last year, I was keen to read more Zusak.

I enjoyed this. It was an easy read – I didn’t realise when I picked it up that it was aimed at the teen market – and the characters were interesting. Ed was an observant and funny narrator and the messages he has to deliver are weird and I was keen to know who was sending them. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the other Zusak I’ve read. It’s sometimes a little weird when you read an earlier work by a writer and this felt like it just wasn’t quite there yet. It had a lot of Zusak’s quirks but they weren’t delivered quite as well as in the later books.

The opening chapter is one of the best I have read. Ed and his friend Marv are face down in a bank that is being robbed, rather incompetently. By the end of the chapter, Ed is a hero and his face is in all the newspapers. Not long after this, he receives the first playing card – the ace of clubs – which has three addresses on it. At each address, he has to do something to help the people who live there. This theme follows with the other playing cards. Some of the jobs are easy – pretending to be an elderly lady’s long lost husband, for example – and some are difficult – dealing with a man who comes home each night to rape his wife, for example. As the novel progresses, the messages Ed has to deliver become more personal and he starts to realise that there is more to him than just being a underage cab driver.

All the way through, I was curious about where the playing cards were coming from. I knew there was potential for it to completely spoil the story if I wasn’t convinced by it or if we didn’t get to find out. As it is, when Ed has delivered all the messages, a man appears who tells him he has arranged everything. He killed Ed’s father, made the bank robbery happen, forced the man to rape his wife and so on. He gives Ed all the notes he has made about it and sure enough all the events are in there. Clearly, this man represents the author who is controlling everything in order to make Ed a better person. I’m a sucker for fiction about fiction so that really appealed to me. (Obviously, you could see this as a religious metaphor if you wanted to but I prefer the idea of an overarching author to that of an overarching God.) It left me feeling happy and satisfied.

Books Read in 2021 – 28. The Fellowship of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1954

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When Bilbo Baggins decides he is going to leave the Shire, he leaves his heir, Frodo with an immense task. One of the items passed on to Frodo is a ring with immense power. This means that Frodo has to leave his home and take on the hugely important task of destroying the ring.

Time on shelf: These books belong to my husband and have been on our shelves for the entirety of our time living together so 25 years. As he was allowed to help me put together this years reading list, this was at the top of it.

I read The Hobbit a long time ago and really enjoyed it but when I tried to read The Fellowship of the Ring, I just couldn’t get into it. I tried a couple of more times over the years but to no avail so I was expecting this to be a bit of a slog. And in fact, the prologue explaining all the history was hard going. (I remembered that one of the previous times I hadn’t even made it through this part.) However, once the story got started, I started to enjoy it more.

Of course, I have seen the films more than once so I had some idea of the story – as most people do – but I didn’t remember it well and the book is quite different anyway so I wasn’t bored by the unfurling of the story. (The only slight issue being that the casting for some of the roles in the movie was so good that they filled my mind when those characters came up – Frodo and Bilbo mainly but also Saruman and Gandalf as well.) The plot is straightforward. Frodo is the keeper of the ring and he gradually amasses the rest of the group who will make up the Fellowship and they start to make their way towards Mordor. This is not an issue as there are enough ups and downs to keep the reader’s interest. Tolkien’s style is easy to read without being simplistic.

The heart of the novel is the friendship between the Hobbits and particularly that between Sam and Frodo. Sam is absolutely devoted to Frodo and is devastated when he thinks that Frodo may have left to carry on his journey alone. When Frodo is hurt, Sam stays by his side. He sneaks into the Council of Elrond in order to be close to him. There is a definite homo-erotic element to this, making their friendship tender and intimate. It makes up for the general lack of sexuality and romance elsewhere in the novel.

However, there were a couple of things that stopped this from getting five stars. First of all, the insistence of having the story unfurl around Frodo meant that there was a good amount of talk so that the reader could learn what had happened to the others. This slowed the action. (This is remedied in the films by having the action move between Gandalf and Frodo, for example.) There is also a lot of history that Tolkien has to somehow get into the story and again, this slowed things down.

The characters in the novel don’t particularly develop. The Hobbits are Hobbits with their appetites and their singing, the Elves are Elves and so on. They don’t change unless they come into contact with the ring. The focus is on the adventure rather than the characters taking part in it. This is part of the reason that I don’t read a lot of straightforward fantasy or adventure. I much prefer a story of character development. It is also quite a boyish book with few significant women but given that it was written in the fifties, perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Tolkien if he could only imagine a world where men were free to go off on quests and did the majority of fighting.

Ultimately, this is a story of good and evil and the unlikely heroes these times make. It is easy to sympathise with Frodo as he is clearly not made for this sort of behaviour. The story trots along nicely although I didn’t feel compelled to immediately pick up the next instalment. I will read it though and that is something I did not expect to say.